For the first few years of high school, I had the cockeyed idea that even though my easygoing father didn't say much, he was secretly on my side. The way I saw it, he was piggybacking on me. On a car trip, I would never say I had to use the bathroom, because that would be siding with my mother, who was always agitating to stop. When my mother thought up some new project, I'd come down on the side of not doing it, reasoning that any sane person would prefer watching the ball game on TV to wallpapering. In return, I was certain that when my mother grounded me for one month because I didn't make it home at nine P.M. from a basketball game to stay with Jimmy so my parents could go play bridge, my father was silently thinking that it was cruel and unusual punishment.
The summer I worked at the naval depot with my father, I broached the subject of Mom's crazed approach to life when we were in the car one morning, fully expecting him to agree. But it turned out that "Margaret, listen to your mother" was not code for "I'm on your side but not at liberty to say so."
How could my father love someone who could be so rigid and demanding? Like all marriages, theirs had its mysteries. Though my mother didn't make my father special servings of potatoes and peas like Grandma, he relied on her for a life he couldn't have lived on his own. My father gave my mother an anchor and an easygoing, willing presence, while my mother gave my father wings. He was the saint, but he might have rested on a pedestal without her.
What saved us all from the toxic shock of me was that my mother had a baby when I was a junior in high school. Aside from my adolescent reaction ("What were they thinking?"), I was so enthralled by Edmund that I took a U-turn back to being a homebody. I stood by the crib staring, willing him to wake up so I could give him his bottle.
The baby transformed my mother. With Jimmy to tend to every minute of the day and monitoring my progress to make sure lightning hadn't struck twice, I doubt she had the ease to enjoy me. With this third child, I discovered the woman she must have been when she assembled the white spool crib excitedly expecting her first child — warm and relaxed and a little bit lazy. She let things go just to play with the baby. Of course, every home improvement that could be made had been made, but she stopped a lot of the optional activities as well. She moved the kiln to the basement, closed the sewing machine and used it as a desk, cooked on demand, not as a hobby, and, in general, mellowed out. I don't recall her ever again yelling, "Margaret, get in here, I mean it, come here right now or I'm going to kill you." She had been given another chance to get it right. She read Dr. Spock about when Edmund should be learning the alphabet. She wasn't worried he never would.